“Mage to herald four.”
The walls of Mandos stretched off into the distance, fading to a kind of misty amorphousness. People came and went or sat talking in small groups, but it never felt crowded and was so quiet that the distant ripple of flowing water could always be heard. Ereinion assumed the sound was meant to be soothing, but in fact it was working his last nerve. He wondered if there was any point in complaining to their host. He suspected not.
He studied the board, which resembled a chess board but wasn’t. Rather like the game itself which, despite its purple and gold pieces, was close enough to chess to confuse the unwary. He pushed an amethyst figure on an octagonal base firmly across several squares. “Warrior to minion three,” he responded.
Turgon blinked at him in confusion. “You can’t do that, it’s against the rules.”
Ereinion frowned. “No, it’s not. It’s a warrior, you move it in a straight line? Which I did?”
“Yes, yes, but you can’t move a piece into danger. Look, I can take it with that one – and that one…”
“If I want to put one of my pieces in danger, that’s my business, right?” Ereinion wished they at least had the illusion of being able to eat and drink, because a good cup of something red, full-bodied and grape-related was just what he needed right about now.
“You have to protect your pieces.” Turgon was getting agitated, tapping his fingers on the table at the edge of the board.
“No,” Ereinion told him equably. “What you have to do is win the game. You’re going to lose a few pieces along the way, best you be the one to decide which, wouldn’t you think?”
Turgon shook his head fiercely. “No, that’s not the way. The way is to keep your pieces safe. See? I have a ring of defenders along the outside of my territory, and they will cut down anyone who tries to reach the vulnerable pieces.”
“The mage isn’t vulnerable,” Ereinion snorted. “He can move to any square on the board, take out any piece that catches his fancy. He’s wasted, stuck away in that corner. He should be out there leading by example.”
Turgon carefully moved a gold warrior to close up a gap he had just noticed. “He is very powerful, yes,” he concurred. “That is why he needs to stay where he is as a last line of defense for the queen.”
Ereinion propped his elbows on the table’s edge and rested his chin broodingly on interlinked fingers. He studied the board again for a while, then looked across at his uncle. “So let me get this right. You could send your army to wipe out my pieces and capture my queen, but instead you maintain a defensive line and just move them backwards and forwards. You’re keeping the important ones safe but not inflicting any damage on the enemy. You plan to win this – how? Hoping I’ll get tired and go lie down? This is Mandos – we’re dead, we don’t get tired.” Not physically, anyway. Mentally now, some people could be what you might call wearying.
Turgon looked outraged. “Who do you think you are talking to? Mind your tongue, whelp. I will win this in my own time and in my own way. Nothing hasty or ill-conceived. “
Ereinion pulled a face and moved his hand over first one and then another of his pieces. They were spread out across the board, some at considerable risk, some just left in odd places at the conclusion of unsuccessful attempts to breach the defensive ring around the opposing queen. “I’m talking to my father’s brother, one adult to another, in fact one king to another. Wasn’t aware I had to do the ‘please, sir, excuse me, sir’ thing. Haven’t done that since I was a boy and Círdan was in one of his fussy moods.”
He spotted a piece off to the side of the board and settled on it triumphantly. This one used a combination of three moves, two squares along, one down, one diagonally, and had taken him a while to master. Moments later, one of Turgon’s minions had been taken. “Check,” Ereinion said cheerfully. There were other terms used in this game, but he and Turgon had settled on the accustomed check and checkmate as being comfortable in their familiarity.
“What? No. No, no, no!” Turgon’s eyes darted frantically about the board, looking for a counter that refused to present itself. “No, that’s not right. I had that whole side covered, how is that possible…?”
“Easy to overlook something,” Ereinion said. “You just need to remember that and improvise when the time comes.”
The former king of Gondolin was muttering away to himself, agitated. Finally he made the obvious move, which was to place the mage where he could threaten the warrior. Ereinion’s eyebrow twitched. “You sure you want to do that?” he asked. “You can reverse that and do something else if you want. We’ve got – plenty of time.”
“Oh yes, reverse it and your warrior will be right there next to my queen.”
Ereinion shrugged. “Yes, so? It has to move four squares, remember. Just keep an eye on it. This gives you a chance to expand out of that corner, you know.”
Which was about as helpful as he was prepared to be.
Turgon looked at him uncertainly, his deep blue eyes troubled, then gave his neat, dark head a miniscule shake and sat back from the board. “I know what I’m doing,” he declared stiffly. “Rather safe than sorry.”
Ereinion, whose eyes were also blue but far lighter and whose dark hair hung in a disordered, almost-curly mane, sighed and looked down at his somewhat shorter uncle. “Have it your way then.”
It was over quickly: Ereinion moved an innocuous piece a few squares, giving every appearance of trying to buy time while he did some thinking, Turgon hurriedly used his mage to take the warrior and Ereinion smiled at him just a touch smugly, resting his fingertips atop his unnoticed herald. “Check,” he said, indicating the line that stretched from the herald to his opponent’s queen. “In fact, checkmate.”
Turgon looked from the board to him in horror. “You can’t do that!” he stated. “You can’t do that. It’s – it’s not fair! I did it all right. I kept them all safe. You can’t do that!”
To house all the dead of both the first and second born, the Halls of Mandos must have been huge, yet somehow Ereinion had no trouble getting where he needed to go. There were no signposts, no landmarks, but a few twists and turns down quiet, blue-carpeted, cream walled passages and he was outside what he thought of as Lord Námo’s office.
Being far from stupid, he was well aware the room was designed for his benefit and not its inhabitant. No doubt it looked very different to the elegant, black haired Vala who sat on the far side of the desk reading from a stack of tastefully illuminated sheets of parchment. The single chair for guests was upholstered in soft green leather, and it fitted Ereinion exactly. He sprawled down into it without waiting to be invited.
“That’s it,” he said flatly with a dismissive hand gesture. “I’ve done my best, but I’ve had enough now.”
Námo said nothing, although he put down the pen he was holding and professed a look of polite interest.
“It’s always the same,” Ereinion grumbled. “Offer him a game of whatever takes his fancy, set it up, start playing, and the longer we go on, the more defensive and cautious he becomes – like a bunny that’s too scared to leave its warren. And pompous. And full of it!”
“Yes, yes,” Námo said. “We discussed this before you began mentoring him. It takes time for a soul to work through the baggage accumulated in life and to accept its lessons or recover from its hurts. When – Gondolin? – was overrun…”
“…the shock tipped the balance of his already shaky mental health and he hasn’t recovered yet. Yes. I know. Even though he’s been here for well over four thousand years as we measured it in Middle-earth. Which is a damn long time, let me add.”
Námo shrugged delicately, the merest shifting of shoulders under perfectly tailored cloth. “Some cases take longer than others. We – I thought that perhaps spending time with a kinsman, one whose approach to combat was… somewhat other than his, might help him see there are more ways than one to solve a problem and that mistakes are there to be learned from, not hidden behind.”
“Wasn’t it your brother Ulmo who told him to go hide inside the mountains like that?” Ereinion growled, irritated. “Do you have any idea how much damage that did to the stature of the high kingship? It was years before people took me seriously.”
Námo gave him a sharp look. “My brother might have suggested a safe haven, but at no time did he suggest blocking all escape routes. That was Turgon’s own act of unsurpassed brilliance.”
“Whatever,” Erenion said dismissively. “Anyhow, watching Uncle trying to wiggle free of the obvious is starting to wear a bit thin. How much longer do I have to stay here? I lived a decent kind of life, I died trying to sort out one of your renegades, don’t see why I’m stuck here helping someone whose actions at Alqualondé were – open to question.”
Námo considered his nails, buffed one briefly against his sleeve, then looked up out of eyes blacker than night’s pit. “You wish to leave?”
His voice was flat, inflexionless. Most elves would have flinched and backed down, but Ereinion Gil-galad had faced Sauron with nothing but a spear – well, there’d been a sword at his belt, but he’d had no chance to get his hand to it before there was a flare of blinding light and then… nothingness. He stared back, an eyebrow raised in a manner that his former aides would have recognised as preface to a bitingly sarcastic outburst, worthy of Elrond or even Erestor.
The Vala glared at him before rising and stalking through to an inner room. Ereinion waited. Námo returned with a sheet of parchment in his hand. Resuming his seat behind the desk, he started reading.
“Lived for just under three thousand, six hundred years… not very long for an eternal being, is it? he asked, glancing up.
“You want to compare that to the average life expectancy of the male side of my family?” Ereinion retorted dryly.
“Quite. King in Exile, born in Middle-earth… half Sindar?” Eyes flicked across Ereinion. “Yes, the hair. Fought Sauron and his minions, departed corporality due to an attempt to…” Námo stopped, read some more. “Oh, I never noticed this part before. You ran at that lunatic Sauron with a spear and you were – surprised to find yourself here? Really?” Námo’s face took on a nostalgic expression. He was almost smiling. “I remember Sauron from the old days – all glide and purr and steel claws. And that hair!”
Ereinion cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the file Námo was meant to be reading. The Vala shrugged and resumed skimming the details. “Been an exemplary guest, assisted in the rehabilitation of at least two fëar…”
“Ecthelion, right? Where is he anyhow? Haven’t seen him around in…” Time moved at a different rate for the dead, he remembered. “For ages,” he concluded hastily.
“We had him rehoused some time ago,” Námo replied. “Placed him with a very nice couple in Tirion to get him started again before reuniting him with his former family.”
Ereinion had been leaning forward, trying to read the file upside down. Now he glared. “Nice for him. Now, when can I…?”
“You? Oh you can go now if you’d like. There seems to be a suggestion that you be rehoused in the shortest time decent, a request in my wife’s hand, in fact. She gets these little fancies now and then,” he confided with a fond look. He dipped his pen while he was speaking, signed neatly, then held out the sheet casually.
Rich cream parchment, solid black ink – Erestor would like it, Ereinion thought irrelevantly. “What do I do with this?”
“Nothing at all. I thought you might want to read it before you leave. You’ll sleep now, and when you wake I believe you will experience something normally described as a ‘crashing headache’. Someone will look after you – you have an extensive family, some of whom are former guests here. Thank you for your help with your uncle. It has been a pleasure working with you.”
He smiled and made a small gesture with his fingers, and Ereinion slid back in his chair, eyes closing. Námo leaned over to retrieve the parchment which he set down neatly on the pile containing business already attended to.
The figure in the ‘chair’ began to fade as the fëa was drawn to its new although entirely familiar home. Námo leaned back, linked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. Who should he send along next to test Turgon’s acting skills, he wondered. The Noldo seemed quite enthusiastic about expiating the guilt he carried from Alqualondé by helping others work through the veracity or otherwise of the choices that had led them here. Ereinion Gil-galad had not taken much time at all, he appeared to have a commendable grasp on the principle of throwing the dice with the full knowledge that the risk might not pay off. Refreshing really.
Not for the first time, Námo wondered if the moment had not perhaps come to let Turgon loose on his uncle Fëanor.
Beta: Red Lasbelin
AN: For Zhie in the Midwinter drabble swap.